I read an article on my beloved MatadorNetwork last night that got me thinking about TEFL once more. It’s been nine months since I was a teacher, and I’m now back on the side of the student while on my MA course.
The piece is called “How to teach English abroad and not be a neocolonialist.” Loaded title. Let me start by saying that I have considered this at some length, throughout the times I was teaching English abroad and in the US. I agree that neocolonialism is bad, and that many of the ways English is taught around the world are extremely problematic. I’ve even shown my students Patricia Ryan’s fantastic talk about the globalisation of English, and hope that English never becomes the wasteland that TOEFL seems to hope it would be.
I wrote about neocolonialism and my own place in the great English Machine in the first few weeks in Chile, in 2011:
In Chile, “neo-colonialist” sometimes seemed to become synonymous with “gringo” (which is not particularly offensive in Chilean Spanish, although it may be in other places). The idea that I could exist as an anglophone volunteer who tried her hardest to learn the local language and to avoid cultural imperialism like the plague to the best of my ability was ignored, because all that could be swept away with a single utterance of that term. Given my background, my ethnicity, and my native language, I could never be anything but a neo-colonialist in the minds of many, no matter how many rules I followed.
In Korea, the situation is equally complex. Historical considerations of the USA and perhaps a far more developed “Cult of English” made some of the points in the article from yesterday much more apparent. But was it my fault that I was asked to keep an English-Only policy in the classroom by my employer? Is it the fault of the native speaking teacher that demand in Korea is high for them, based on expectations of what “good English” is or where it comes from? Can I help the fact that I was born into English, and not just any English…accents from the Front Range of Colorado tend to be highly-sought after even in the US (Let me put it this way: We basically sound like news anchors.)?
And yes, we had Halloween at my Korean Hagwon. I had no say in the matter. It was a corporate decision and we had to participate as part of our job. The kids liked it well enough, and we were careful to say that it was just one holiday that is not better or worse than any other. Some parents removed their children from classes that day, claiming that they should never get a day off from TOEFL. Now that’s oppressive.
I wanted to respond to the article, from my own perspective. I originally posted this as a comment, but as I explored the issues and my experiences, I found myself with nearly 800 words. Nobody’s got time for that in a comment. That’s why I’ve re-posted here, and why I used “you” throughout to refer to the author, Alyssa James.
To me, it appears that the piece is saying that most TEFL teachers *are* neocolonists. It appears to suggest that this is the default position. That inevitably most who teach abroad are in a “Teacher > students. English >any other language.” mentality, and not even aware that they are. I just do not see it that way at all. I do not believe that I was a neocolonialist while teaching abroad, either. At least not of my own volition.
We are living in a post-colonial/neocolonial world, and it is oppressive. I agree with that. But the teachers who move abroad and do all the things Alyssa James asserts are neocolonialist behaviour (feeling like an Other, acknowledging English as one possible part of success, being unable/unwilling/told not to learn the language of the students, keeping an English-Only policy in the classroom) are not operating in a vacuum. Any analysis of their behaviour must be informed by the knowledge that they didn’t choose to be native speakers any more than their students/colleagues chose their own native languages. Furthermore, I’ve been a language student many times. I know that the types of things described in the article are not limited to English alone, and I believe I have a well-informed idea of the most-effective teaching I’ve known as a student of French, Italian, Spanish, and Korean.
Please see my original comment below.
While I agree broadly with most of the piece, there are a couple things that you simply get wrong. (Obligatory personal background: Originally from the US. I taught English in the US (as a tutor), in Chilean Patagonia, and in South Korea. I wrote about these experiences here on MatadorNetwork and for BridgeTEFL I’m currently on an MA course in Linguistics in the UK.)
First problem: Assuming that by ‘feeling like the Other’ teachers were referring only to their classroom experiences, and asserting that those feelings are not legitimate.
In Korea, there are about 22,000 foreign English Teachers. Roughly 0.04% of the population. By my definition, a minority, and a tiny one at that. It’s reasonable that foreign teacher might feel somewhat singled out or at least as though they don’t quite fit in in broader cultural, linguistic, racial, or other terms. The nature of being a native English teacher in a country where English is not the most-used language is to be in a minority population.
We could resolve this by assuming that the category of ‘The Other’ is fixed and can never include certain groups, which appears to be your analysis of the English teachers (essentially: You are not the Other, and you never can be because you were born into English). This is simply not true. It is possible that under certain circumstances, being a native English speaker could be detrimental in a specific culture or scenario.
You appear to assume that the people with privilege (like being born into English) can control their own position in the system, or that they are even able to be aware of it. Being born into English is a chance accident over which they have no control, any more than the students in their classes or their non-native-speaking colleagues could control not being born into it. It is fairly well established that an oppressive, unequal system can trap and constrain the Oppressor as much as the Oppressed.
Second Problem: Assuming that by speaking in only English in the classroom, the teacher is being inherently oppressive to their students. Firstly, most TEFL teachers have little control over the policies that are chosen and put into place by the schools in which they teach.
Their job may be at least partially contingent on maintaining English-only in the classroom. I find it a stretch to say that the teachers themselves are being neocolonialist, as opposed to the TEFL system of the school or more generally the system of English in the world that the teacher is merely one tiny person in. Those systems may be neocolonialist, but holding an English-only policy under some coercion is a by-product of that oppressive system and not produced by the TEFL teacher themselves.
Furthermore, not all classrooms are the same. Not all students are the same. Some classrooms need a mixture of English and more language(s). Some, especially higher-level courses where the goal is to hone English rather than begin it, need English-only as a matter of pushing students to learn to express themselves in complex ways without translation. With everything translated into the native language, or even with some translation, there is the constant possibility of an ‘out’ (that is, the ability to use a word from the native language without translating instead of finding a way to use the target language alone). Students eventually stop progressing.
This is not unique to English-teaching. French teachers do it. Italian teachers do it. Mandarin teachers do it. Arabic teachers do it. Basically any native speaker of any language does it when teaching that language, at a certain point. The goal is not to promote the hegenomy of a single language, but to approximate the pressure of an immersive environment. If the environment outside the classroom is not immersive and not pushing students to use the target language in their everyday lives, one possible way to approximate immersion is to use English-Only in the classroom.
Frankly, if we assume that TEFL teachers have ‘the antithesis of minority status’ because ‘what you do or don’t do in the classroom can affect your students’ life chances,’ it would be irresponsible not to prepare students for a situation in which they cannot use their native language, and they cannot translate. This is what the goal of learning a language is; to actually be able to use it in practice outside a classroom setting, ostensively with native speakers of that language.
Yours is a fine analysis from a particular perspective. However, it misses clear things that should inform why certain things happen in the world of TEFL and how the teachers within it behave. There are, of course, ways of teaching English that are neocolonial, but the blame for that should be placed more on the systems that produce the hegemony of English and the effects of this system on those within it, teachers included. Blame the system, not the teachers.
But the question remains open: Does teaching English abroad make you a neocolonialist?
I don’t think so. What do you think?